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The Story of Oats

Generally in South Africa when we think oats we think of the regular or the instant rolled oats.  But this is just one the many types of oats that exists and can be used.  Let’s take a look at how oats originated and what types we can use.


Evidence of the first cultivated grains is found in caves in Switzerland that are thought to be from the Bronze Age.  However, although archaeological studies show that they were found from about 2000 BC in Asia, they actually originally grew as weeds in other grain crops.  It was much closer to the birth of Christ when oats were purposely grown.

Oats were not as preferred as other grains because they had a bland taste and tended to mould quicker.  Many people believed they should rather be used as animal feed.  Interestingly, before they were used as food for humans they were used for medicinal purposes (to protect against cancers and heart disease, soothe skin conditions, use as an antispasmodic etc.)  However, with the cool weather being an ideal climate for growing the grains oats became a staple in Germany, Ireland, the Scandinavian countries, and most popular in Scotland, where ‘Scottish oats’ are still a favorite to this day.

With time, oats became an important crop until about 1920.  At this stage the land which had been used to grow oats was replaced by soybeans, as these were a more marketable crop.  However, as knowledge of nutrition improved, oats got attention for its beta-glucans and water-soluble fibres which can help inhibit cholesterol absorption.  Oats therefore became known as a healthy food in the mid 1980’s and have become more popular for human nutrition again.

Types of Oats

First, we get the newly harvested raw oats.  This is the oats fresh from the field, before the kernels have been separated from the hulls and stalks.  You won’t find them in the stores in this way!

Once the oat kernels are harvested, cleaned, and have all their inedible hulls removed they are known as whole oat groats (groat is another name for a grain kernel).  Because the grains are still whole, they take the longest to cook.  Earth Products, which is sold at Wellness Warehouse, have the whole oat groats.  

The whole oat groats are cut into two or three pieces using a sharp metal blade, resulting in steel cut oats.  These oats cook a little quicker, but still have the nutty, chewy texture of the whole oat groats.  Woolworths sells steel cut oats under their brand (see product of the month).  Steel cut oats are also called Irish oatmeal.  This is different to Scottish oatmeal where the whole oat groats are ground to create broken bits of different sizes, resulting in a softer porridge.

The old fashioned rolled oats are made by steaming the whole oat groats and then rolling them into flakes.  This causes the oils in the oats to become more stable, thereby keeping the product fresher for longer, and it allows the oats to cook faster.  With the quick or instant rolled oats the flakes are thinner and the oats are steamed for a longer period of time, reducing the cooking time to the point where you just have to add boiling water.

Oat bran is different to oats as the bran, rather than the germ or endosperm, is used.

Keen to try oats?  With the colder mornings arriving oats can be delicious as a porridge, but a bircher muesli is just as delectable!

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